KABUL (Reuters) - Talks between Afghanistan's rival presidential candidates have stalled again, in part over when and how to release the final results of an election that both say was rigged by the other side, officials said on Wednesday.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani were close to a power-sharing deal on Tuesday after they met face-to-face, aides said, but they failed to reach agreement.
One sticking point was that Abdullah did not want the results as they now stand - widely assumed to show him losing - made public. He also wants more ballots invalidated to narrow Ghani's presumed margin of victory, officials said.
Both sides had earlier pledged to accept the results of a U.N.-monitored investigation into vote-rigging.
The dispute over the vote to replace President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's only leader since the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention to oust the Taliban, has destabilized Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops at year's end.
A power-sharing deal is widely seen as the best hope for peace after each candidate said he won the election and accused the other of vote-rigging, fuelling ethnic and tribal resentment that many people fear could spill over into violence.
The proposed unity government would see the eventual winner of the June runoff election named president. It would also create an expanded chief executive position for the runner-up.
The idea was proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in July after preliminary results of the runoff, which showed Ghani 1.2 million votes ahead, prompted protests by Abdullah supporters.
Details of how much power the chief executive would wield have been a major obstacle in finalizing the deal.
Abdullah is also insisting that the final election results, due within days, be delayed until a deal on a unity government is agreed, his spokesman, Mujib Rahimi, said on Wednesday.
The Abdullah camp would walk out of negotiations if the results are released without its agreement, he said.
Afghanistan's President Karzai said on Wednesday that the United States needed to work with other countries that also had an interest in the vote's outcome to help push through deal.
"Afghanistan must not be a ground for competition between countries ... It is therefore important that the U.S. should seek an environment of common understanding with other countries," he said in a statement.
His spokesman Aimal Faizi said the president wanted the U.S. to engage regional powers including neighboring Iran.
One of the proposals Abdullah made in his meeting with Ghani was for the Election Complaints Commission to invalidate more votes in order to narrow the margin between the candidates while still allowing Ghani to win, according to three people with knowledge of the meeting.
"We were asked to agree on an outcome of the result by a close margin," Ghani spokesman Tahir Zahir said on Wednesday. "But we did not accept it. We want the election bodies to announce the genuine result of the election."
A government official with direct knowledge of Tuesday's meeting confirmed that Abdullah had asked for adjusted results that showed him losing narrowly so that he could sell the deal to his backers. An Abdullah aide, who asked not to be named, also confirmed the account.
Abdullah spokesman Rahimi would not discuss specific proposals in the negotiations, but he said any results showing a loss by a wide margin could enrage supporters of the losing side and lead to new instability.
"The society is polarized and any indication that 'OK, this party is the loser' might create further tension," Rahimi said. "So there are talks and different ideas how to manage that so we don't have a crisis."
Among the other unresolved issues are how many government positions each side has can appoint and whether the new chief executive can call and chair cabinet meetings, Rahimi said.
Ghani's team has called for the results to be released quickly, and election officials have said they will announce them whether or not there is a deal.
The protracted elections process has now entered its final phase, requiring a separate Elections Complaints Commission to rule on allegations of fraud, aside from the U.N.-sponsored audit.
Elections Complaints Commission spokesman Nader Mohseni said that work would be finished by Friday and then the figures would be sent back to the Independent Elections Commission to be declared official and released to the public. No firm date for making final results public has been announced.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Andrew Heavens